For more than two years, consultant Todd Black was there when frustrated Manchester officials needed answers to financial questions abouttheir $11 million sewage treatment plant expansion.
Black -- and his Delta Planning Associates Inc. of Bel Air, Harford County -- was as close as the telephone, always ready to make the 56-mile trip to the North Carroll town when a frustrated mayor or a confused council member needed to unscramble complicated federal grant formulas, apply for more state aid or interpret an environmental ruling.
But suddenly, in early June, Black wasn't available anymore.
"Now we're stuck doing his job," said David M. Warner, the town's projects administrator, who, since July, has more or less learned how to do Black's job. "We had no idea where he was. It's like he disappeared."
Shortly after cashing the town's check for $11,831.95 at The Forest Hill State Bank in Linthicum, Anne Arundel County, on June 12, the sometime photographer, exporter and landowner apparently relocated to Antigua, a town of 18,000 people west of Guatemala City.
The 43-year-old was contracted as grants consultant on Manchester's 10-year expansion project until the end of this month. He already had beenpaid more than $46,000 for being available.
"We were expecting him to be around," said Mayor Earl A. J. "Tim" Warehime Jr.
"He let us down."
Manchester's repeated calls went unanswered. By late June, Delta Inc.'s Bel Air phone number had been disconnected, bills forits services stopped coming in and Black didn't show up -- in his usual oxford shirt, tie, jeans and boots -- for monthly briefings.
Delta Inc. isn't doing any consulting these days -- something his customers said Black, its sole employee, didn't tell them. Customers likeManchester, Aberdeen, Brunswick, Chesapeake City and Frederick County.
"He left us high and dry," said John Kendall, manager for the Frederick County town of Brunswick. "When I last talked to him, he told me, 'I'll be in Guatemala for about two weeks. I'll be back for theend-of-year audit.' That was in June."
Black was the grants consultant as well as the engineering inspector for the town's $6.8 million sewage treatment plant. He also was contracted for grant work for the county's new Knoxville-area sewage plant. And he had done some grant work for a downtown rehabilitation project in the town.
"When he left, he didn't return some documents needed for that audit," Kendall said. "We had to spend time reconstructing them."
In ChesapeakeCity, Black was the grants administrator for the Cecil County town's$2.7 million sewage treatment plant.
George Keller, chief of the projects management division of the Maryland Department of the Environment, said Black's leaving could make the towns vulnerable during audits. If auditors are unhappy, Keller said, the towns could lose the amount of money paid to Black for his work.
"I hope we don't lose money," Manchester's Warehime said. "If we have problems with the audit and have to ante up, we would go the legal route."
While his leaving early without notification troubled clients, most said the quality of the work performed was not an issue.
"I know he did a real bang-up job," said Linda Boyer, former mayor of Mount Airy, where Black was a grants administrator in 1987 and 1988 for an annexation project in the South Carroll town."He was a whiz at answering questions and getting information."
In Manchester, it was Boyer's strong support of Black's work that led then-Mayor Elmer C. Lippy to hire him in1989.
"I didn't delve into his background too much because we were so desperate (for a consultant) at the time and so happy to get somebody," Lippy said. "I should have delved into it.
"We were misled. Instead of doing a job for the municipality, he did a job on the municipality."
In addition to Mount Airy and Manchester, Black also did work in Sykesville in the mid-1980s, overseeing grants used for Main Street revitalization.
Even though he left Manchester, Brunswick and Chesapeake City before final project audits were completed, officials in those towns say he performed most of the work for which hewas hired.
"He didn't stiff us on any work (on two grants worth about $1 million)," said Peter Dacey, administrator in Aberdeen, Harford County. "He wrapped up work on the last grant, the '86 grant, at the tail end of 1990."
He left the country without notice despite his ties to the area. Black had attended Bel Air High and took coursesat Harford Community College and Loyola College in Baltimore, according to his resume, which did not say if he graduated from any of them.
For 12 years, his resume said, he was in the grants planning andcommunity development field. He also was a "self-taught professionalphotographer" and a "professionally motivated self-starter."
State records show that Delta Planning Associates Inc. was incorporated March 11, 1986. It was located at 21 W. Courtland St., a building court records say Black was part-owner in until at least last October. Black retains his offices, although they are unoccupied, said Bel Air attorney Albert J. A. Young, the landlord.
In his 1989 Manchester sewage project bid -- which appeared on Delta Planning Associates Inc.stationery -- Black said, "Besides myself, Delta Planning Associateshas at its disposal a network of professionals. . . . Todd Black/Delta Planning Associates maintains fully equipped office facilities in Bel Air."
However, state corporate records show Delta Inc. was dissolved in December 1987, two years before his Manchester bid.
Eventhough the corporation was dissolved, Black billed his customers as Delta Inc. and wrote correspondence and submitted bids on Delta Inc. stationery. At the same time, he deposited his checks as Delta Planning Associates and maintained an American Express corporate account asDelta Planning Associates, court records show.
"It's certainly improper," said business law expert Barry F. Rosen, chairman of Gordon,Feinblatt, Rothman, Hoffberger & Hollander of Baltimore. "If it isn't a corporation, he shouldn't hold himself out as a corporation. . . . It opens the individual up to personal liability."
But Rosen said the problem may be that "there's no remedy or punishment or consequence, even though it may be misleading by giving an impression of having a larger organization.
"If you make a statement knowing it's not true with the intent to have someone rely on it and they do rely on it and are damaged, that's fraud. But it's hard to put together a fraud count because you'd have to prove you would not have done business with him if you'd known he's not a corporation."
But Rosen saidit might be possible to pursue a breech-of-contract suit because Black left early.
"If he is no longer available, that would be a breech," he said.
And while that company -- as well as Black-owned Montage Photography, 222 Bohemia Partnership and NAC XIT Imports -- are not listed in any corporate or trading entity record in Maryland, as is the general procedure, companies do not need to be registered withthe state, Rosen and several assistant attorneys general said.
Black moved to Antigua eight months after his nearly 12-year marriage ended. He lives with Lis Marroquin, a Guatemalan he met on trips to that country in March 1990. The names on Delta's mailbox are Todd and Lis Black.
Attempts to reach Black and Marroquin in Guatemala last week were unsuccessful.
Black's import-export firm -- which apparently deals mostly in handicrafts and clothing -- is not registered with the U.S. Customs Service, the Federal Trade Commission, the Commerce Department or anywhere in the state. Customs said that is unusual.
Also, a check in Guatemala of U.S. businesspeople exporting goodsfrom that country -- the Guatemalan Chamber of Non-traditional Products in Guatemala City keeps such records -- showed nothing on Black or his NAC XIT Imports firm.
The U.S. Embassy in Guatemala City, likewise, has no records of his doing business in that country.
But Customs, FTC and Commerce Department officials said that being registered or licensed to import or export the types of products Black handles is not required, although it is normally done. The Guatemalan Chamber's lists are voluntary. And U.S. Customs records in Baltimore show that Black and his company have not had any "negative" reports.
The Harford County Sun's Carol Bowers contributed to this story.